The Cottager | Ventfort Hall: From shambles to Gilded Age museum

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LENOX, MASS. — The survival of Ventfort Hall is a tale of intervention — by a group of local preservationists and perhaps a ghost or two.

Built by Sarah Spencer Morgan and her husband George Hale Morgan in 1893 at a cost of $900,000, the 28-room Jacobean brick and sandstone mansion was in shambles when the Ventfort Hall Association rescued it from the wrecking ball in 1997.

"When it was purchased by the association, there was a hole in the roof and holes in the floor. A fireplace from the second floor had fallen through two floors and was in the basement," Linda Rocke, marketing coordinator for Ventfort Hall and Gilded Age Museum, said during a recent tour of the historic home. "It was the sheer will and determination of the people who founded the Ventfort Hall Association that saved and restored this house.

"For those of us who work here, volunteer here, or serve on the board, there's just something about this house that we love," she added. "It's not like the other homes ... It was meant to be enjoyed."

And enjoyed it was by its original owners, who, according to some, may still linger in the house. Whether or not Sarah and George Morgan still visit the home was the subject of an episode of "Ghost Hunters" in 2012.

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As I arrived at Ventfort Hall on a sunny Tuesday morning, I realized that even though I've twice walked the halls of this estate during paranormal investigations, I've never been on the grounds before sunset. Seeing the red stone home in daylight brings a new appreciation.

Upon entering the foyer, I was in awe of how bright and airy the great hall is, as light filtered through stained-glass windows above me, brightening the large area where dark-colored carved oak panels line the walls. It's here I met Rocke and soon learned of how Ventfort Hall is the second house with that name to sit in this location.

The first house, an Italianate villa named Vent Fort, meaning "Strong Wind," was built by New Yorkers Ogden and Elizabeth Haggerty in 1853. The summer home would remain in the location of the present house nearly 40 years, entertaining a variety of notable guests. Among them would be Col. Robert Gould Shaw, leader of the Massachusetts 54th, the north's first regiment of free African-American soldiers in the Civil War, and the Haggerty's son-in-law. Shaw and his wife, Annie Kneeland Haggerty Shaw, would honeymoon at the home in May 1863. The couple was married for 77 days before he died in battle.

During the 1880s, Flora Payne Whitney, wife of U.S. Secretary of the Navy William C. Whitney, rented the home, where she often entertained first lady Frances Folsom Cleveland.

In 1891, the Morgans purchased the Haggerty estate for $120,000, moved the house across the street and renamed it "Bel Air." It remained intact until 1965, when it was destroyed by fire.

"George and Sarah Morgan were seventh cousins. George was not from the financial side of the family, as Sarah was," Rocke said, noting that Sarah's brother was the banker J.P. Morgan. "In 1891, Sarah inherited $3 million. Her father had died in an accident in Monte Carlo. They opened the house in 1893. Sarah would only enjoy it for three years before she died. She left the estate to their three adult children, granting George lifetime rights to it."

After George Morgan died in 1911, the children sold off the contents of the home and rented it out first to a Vanderbilt heir and then to the Bonsal family. The Bonsal family rented the estate for seven years before purchasing it for $103,000 in 1925 and renaming it "Pembroke House." In 1945, it was sold to Arthur J. Miller for $22,500 and was used as a dorm for Tanglewood students. In the 1950s, the home, known as "Festival House," was owned by Bruno Aron and his wife.

"It was described as a bohemian hotel. Peter Seeger was the artist-in-residence," Rocke said. "It was a summer camp for grown-ups. Two adults could rent a private room with a private bath, with two meals a day for an entire week during the height of Tanglewood season for $70."

From 1965 to 1976, the house was home to The Fokine Ballet Camp. It then came under the ownership of The Bible Speaks, a religious community that eventually abandoned the property. In 1991, developer Arthur Ivey purchased the mansion with the intention of turning it into a nursing home. When he decided the property was too far gone for renovations, he began stripping the house of its fixtures and woodwork to sell them. When it became public that his intention was to raze the mansion, the Venfort Hall Association was founded.

Since the mansion was reopened in 2001 as Ventfort Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum, the home has been slowly restored, with new rooms opening every few years.

"A lot of the woodwork had been taken off of the walls, but was still in the building," Rocke said. "It was a matter of figuring out what went where. We were also very lucky that relatively none of the stained glass windows were broken."

When built, the 28,000-square-foot house had 15 bedrooms, 17 fireplaces, a billiard room, a library, a bowling alley, central heating, an elevator and a burglar alarm. The grounds featured two gate houses, an ice house, six greenhouses and a view of the Stockbridge Bowl.

"It has both gas and electric lighting," Rocke said. "George Westinghouse was a neighbor and friend. He had private generators."

It's not hard to imagine Ventfort Hall's elegance in its day. In the great hall, a gigantic stone fireplace with large lions adorning its mantle, greet those who enter. To the right, a white-walled salon, which functions as a gift shop, is filled with antique couches and plants. The airy room once had its walls draped in French silk, as was the custom.

A little farther down the hall, a wood-paneled library is used for tour groups and lectures. The bookcases lining the walls are permanent fixtures and once had ballet barres attached to them.

"We've learned this from the former students, now in their 50s, who are returning to take tours of the mansion," she said.

In a nearby dining room lined with Cuban mahogany, a table set for a Victorian tea service sits under a chandelier in the center of the room, under the watchful eye of Sarah and George Morgan's portraits. A trip down a hallway takes us past the morning and writing rooms, which are used as offices, to the billiard room, where the richly carved wood on the fire place and walls was imported from Europe.

During a short stop on the covered porch, which runs the length of the house, Rocke pointed out the remaining trees planted by George Morgan — a Gingko biloba and a few Japanese maples.

"See the lawn," she said, pointing to the massive yard before us. "That's the lawn that Michael Caine and Toby Mcguire walk up to get to the orphanage in 'The Cider House Rules'."

"And this is the door they enter through," she said, putting her hand on the door as we make our way back inside.

For me, the most exciting part of the tour is the second floor. As we climbed its massive stairwell, Rocke pointed out the minstrel's galley, an open space overlooking the great hall, where musicians sat and played for the guests below. It is from here that you can view the plaster Scottish pendant ceilings, much of which was restored by master craftsman Jeffrey Gulick. (In other areas, woodwork was restored by master craftsman Michael Costerisan.)

At the top of the staircase, a small alcove filled with sumptuous chairs and couches is tucked underneath the stairwell leading to a third floor that is closed to the public. Here the main bedrooms belonging to Sarah and George Morgan exist. George's room is not presented as a bedroom, but as a dining room. The furniture and china, on loan from Giraud Foster's granddaughter, Jane Foster, are from the nearby Bellefontaine estate, which is now Canyon Ranch.

"We like to say that we have a house with no possessions and [Bellefontaine] has possessions without a house," Rocke said. "It allows us to give a sense of what the furniture and possessions of an estate from this time would look like."

The exhibit, "Treasures of Bellefontaine," includes Royal Worcester china, gilded Venetian glass, American and European silver. A display of fans are found in the rooms connecting the rooms with Sarah's suite, where Carl Sprague has recreated her boudoir.

"While we didn't have the original furniture, we did have an inventory of what was in the room. We knew there were two brass beds. We knew there was a writing desk and an armoire," she said. "We did find the original wallpaper and had it recreated for this room."

Although a reproduction, it is easy to imagine spending hours in this room, writing letters, planning parties and preparing for afternoon outings.

The floor has several additional rooms that are restored, including two bedrooms and a nursery. Although the second floor's east wing remains closed to the public as it is slowly prepped for renovations, it is possible to view those rooms through a window in the door that opens into the additional space.

We made our way back downstairs, where I stopped in the great hall one last time to marvel at the artistry that surrounded me.

As I prepared to leave this grand home, I stopped by the front desk, where for a $1, I picked up a copy of "Mrs. Morgan's Neighbors," a self-guided driving tour of the Gilded Age homes of Kemble Street and Old Stockbridge Road, which I tuck away for another day.

IF YOU GO ...

Ventfort Hall Mansion and Guilded Age Museum

104 Walker St., Lenox, Mass.

Open year-round, this Gilded Age Mansion is owned and operated by the nonprofit Ventfort Hall Association, and is available to rent for private functions, including weddings and parties.

Open: Through Oct. 31: Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Winter hours: Nov. 1 through Memorial Day weekend: Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Closed on Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day

Tours: Guided tours on the hour, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Saturday; from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sunday.

Admission: $18, $17 for seniors and students with ID (18-23), $7 for ages 5 -17, free for 4 and under.

Information: 413-637-3206 or email info@gildedage.org

Special Events: Tea & Talks at 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Aug. 30. Guest speaker followed by Victorian tea. Admission is $24 with advance reservation; $29 day of event. Reservations are recommended. For reservations, call 413-637-3206. Tuesday, July 5: A Sneak Peek at "The Pirates of Penzance" with Julianne Boyd: Barrington Stage at Ventfort Hall

Jennifer Huberdeau, the Berkshire Eagle's online editor, is exploring the Berkshire Cottages, one by one this summer. She can be reached by email at jhuberdeau@berkshireeagle.com.


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